Football: Gascoigne and Middlesbrough find the key to fitness

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The Independent Online
THE FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION is apparently of the opinion that training facilities in the North-east are not up to much. When England play against Belgium next month at Sunderland's Stadium of Light, Kevin Keegan's squad will train at their usual base at Bisham Abbey and fly up to the North- east the night before the game.

I would suggest that the suits at Lancaster Gate may be shirking their homework. Middlesbrough, for example, have a training complex which any Serie A club would be proud of, let alone our national side.

Paul Gascoigne was my tour guide around Rockcliffe Park, which is just 35 minutes from Sunderland. His enthusiasm about the place was compelling.

The flash cars parked outside training grounds are generally the only indicators of the millions of pounds worth of talent sweating inside. At The Cliff, Manchester United's training ground, the gym looks tired, the reception area is decked out in linoleum and laminates and the treatment rooms do not exactly appear to be cutting edge.

Of course there is no direct link between success on the pitch and the quality of the shag pile in your reception, but it is, at the very least, one indicator of a club's ambition. Leeds United moved their training facilities across town about seven years ago to be able to incorporate a purpose-built academy. Now the likes of Jonathon Woodgate, Harry Kewell and Alan Smith are proving just what a success that has been. It is no surprise that Manchester United themselves are on the verge of moving into a new training ground; perhaps they've been saving up.

Back at Rockcliffe, Gazza enthusiastically showed me around the gym. Each player has a key which contains all kinds of information personal to his training regime. Upon inserting the key into any of the pieces of equipment, a screen tells you whose key it is and displays that player's fitness programme. It also links up with a computer that records exactly what the player has done during his work-out.

There are about 20 different pieces of equipment and after you have finished on one, the screen tells you where you should go next. The fitness coaches can then monitor the player's progress exactly. There's no pretending you have done your session when you have been in the canteen for an hour, which is a good thing for our guide. Gazza is lean, showing off a perfectly formed six-pack.

There is a giant egg-shaped contraption, not unlike Mork's spacecraft in Mork and Mindy, inside which the players sit for 45 seconds and have their body composition read. At the moment I would guess it would tell Paul Gascoigne that his body fat is at nine per cent.

As you would expect with millions of pounds worth of talent around, the medical rooms look fit for George Clooney and his ER team. You would feel confident having major surgery in there. There are doctors, physios and masseuses in abundance and more than a few players needing their assistance. Gone are the days when footballers clocked off at 12.30pm. After a hard training session, most of the boys are doing extra fitness work or seeing the doc.

As well as eight or nine manicured pitches outside, there is an indoor pitch which is made of a new substance which looks and feels like grass, so much so that the players can wear moulded studs on it. As the young boys did extra skills training in the afternoon I could not help thinking that they were a little spoilt with all this luxury. "Maybe they are," Gazza agreed. "It's a shame they don't have to clean boots any more." A shame indeed, for all that cleaning up was character-building stuff. Gazza obviously did plenty in his day, for his character shines through the pain of the last few years.

His honesty has always been his problem. He is so open that temptation has no filter. He would be an ideal candidate on The Jerry Springer Show: "I'm a naturally excessive character trying to live a pared-down minimalistic life, Jerry."

Leading a simple life is not easy when you are a compulsive obsessive. The therapists at the Priory Clinic call him regularly but he knows he is not their biggest success. He still has most things in moderation. He's not teetotal, enjoying the odd glass of wine, but that to him is an improvement, as are his reformed eating habits. He was keen to stress to the waiter at lunch that he did not want any sauce with his Dover sole.

Every time an England squad is announced we are subjected to the "Who will play the Gazza role?" debate. The most obvious answer is the man himself, but almost every time Keegan has turned up to watch him play, he has been taken off after a short time with some niggling injury or the other. The ravages of time and excess are taking their toll.

He seems to have accepted that his job right now is to get on and play well for Middlesbrough and enjoy his football, which should be easy if he and Juninho link up well. But you know that deep down, playing for his country is what motivates him; that, after all, is what made him.